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Shaping up

As we were doing Latin this morning in school, I started wondering about something. No, nothing about the 2nd declension or such—we’re very early on in Visual Latin, which is a great course—but just a passing thought.

The lesson we’re on deals with counting in Latin. If you are as clueless about Latin as I was until today, here are some facts: the Latin words for seven, eight, nine, and ten are: septem, octo, novem, decem. These words come into our month labels: September, October, November, December. Because those are the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months. Right?

Right…or not. In some parts of Roman history, the names lined up with those months. They started the new year in March, when all the stuff started sprouting and growing. When the animals started multiplying and delivering, when the days are noticeably longer and warmer. You know, when things seem…”New.”

Rather than spend all of this post chasing the history of why we now celebrate “New Year’s Day” on January 1, just a week off of Christmas and connected to basically no astronomical or meteorological events (Solstice? Equinox? Nope), I want to point this out:

The starting point of a new year is less relevant than you might think. It is certainly a mindset that matters, but overall, there are no magical powers behind it. It’s all about how you conceive of the time.

With that in mind, then, why make a big deal of starting habits now?

Because we often need a little help. I do. Habits are easy to form but difficult to shape. Read that again, because you probably missed it.

Habits are easy to form. We make habits every day, and use them. I have a habit of trying really hard to find excuses to stay in bed in the morning. A habit of drinking coffee. A habit of this.

One simply needs to do something multiple times to form a habit. This is true of good habits or bad habits.

The difficulty arises because we human beings tend to make decisions based on a pain/pleasure scale. Naturally speaking, we choose pleasure over neutrality, and neutrality over pain. This is generally so across the spectrum: more pleasurable over less pleasurable, less pain over more pain.

Our habits, then, develop over lines drawn by that which is most pleasurable, or least painful, at the time. The donut tastes better than the yogurt, so we eat the donut. Every time—unless you think the yogurt actually tastes better.

Exercise seems more painful upfront than the couch, and so forth. And we form those habits.

The challenge of our lives is shaping our habits. Habits are easy to form, but hard to shape. How do we shape them?

We have to think past the immediate to shape our habits. We prefer the donut, but need the oat bar. (I don’t like yogurt, no matter the habit.) Why? Because we recognize the later pain from the donut. We need the exercise.

But the shaping is hard, so any little edge you can give yourself? Grab it. Does counting January as a time of new beginnings, where you are renewing regardless of the world around you? Great! Grab it.


Shape your habits this new year as you work toward being who God has made you to be. 

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